Interview with Dave Jilk, Standing Cloud

For our profile today, we talked with Dave Jilk, the CEO of Boulder-based Standing Cloud ( a provider of cloud application management services. Standing Cloud is venture backed by Avalon Ventures and Foundry Group. Jilk is a serial entrepreneur, having co-founded a number of companies in Boulder, and was the co-founder of Feld Technologies with venture capitalist Brad Feld. Jilk gives us the details on Standing Cloud, as well as some of his views on where the cloud computing industry is headed.

First off, for people who haven't heard of Standing Cloud, describe what you do?

Dave Jilk: What Standing Cloud does, is we provide an application layer on top of infrastructure-as-a-service cloud. Traditionally, the cloud has been divided into software-as-a-service (SaaS), at the top layer, which is what end users use, platform-as-a-service (PaaS), used by developers who are building an application and don't want to deal with the complexity of infrastructure, and infrastructure-as-a-service (IaaS), such as what first came out Amazon Web Services in 2006 and 2007. Lots of people have since copied those features and capabilities in a variety of ways. What we do, is we provide PaaS and SaaS on top of different infrastructure platforms, so that users don't have to deal with the infrastructure. There's something we call the "empty cloud" syndrome, where people sign up for an account at an infrastructure provider, go to the console, startup the service, and see a Linux command prompt. At that point, most people don't know what to do. And, even developers who know what to do there, don't enjoy it. So, we have created a place to put applications and have then operate. For end users and developers, standing cloud is a solution that makes it easier to use those infrastructure providers.

Can you describe a bit where exactly you sit in the cloud stack, and who you serve?

Dave Jilk: We serve end users, business users, and developers. What is interesting about this, is the continuum. On one end of the spectrum, you have hard core developers building their own applications from scratch in some particular language. On the other end, are business users--what Forrester calls the informal buyers--who are not IT professionals or system administrators. An end business user may want to use an application right out of the box. In between, there are all kinds of users. There is a spectrum of different levels where you might use open source applications like SugarCRM, or Drupal, or Wordpress, or Magento, where you might just use the basic application, or you might customize it. You might make software changes, which might range from changing a theme in Drupal to actually changing some of the code, adding plug ins, or even building your own plugin. Some people might even integrate applications, such as integrating between a website built in Drupal and SugarCRM. There are also lots of things people do, that don't fall into either end of that. We support that full spectrum.

We have more than 80 different applications that you can install with a couple of clicks, and use immediately. You don't have to know how to write code, or how to install the software, it just runs. On the other hand, if you're a developer, you can do the same thing, and modify things immediately without setting anything up. Those changes will be reflected in the application, which you can deploy into production, or make new copies of.

We understand -- particularly with the latest issues -- that you can run on multiple cloud computing providers?

Dave Jilk: It's interesting, but for a long time--up until about a week and a half ago-we'd talk about the many cloud platforms we can run across, and we would talk about the fact that applications deployed on our system are portable across cloud platforms. With a few clicks, you can move from one to another. But, until two weeks ago, few cared. They thought it was cool, and interesting, but they said--why don't we just run on one system, we're fine with one. But, since Amazon Web Services went down for four days, everyone started to see the point of why we built that into the system. The idea is, you can run on Amazon today, but if there is a problem, you can click the button and use other one like GoGrid or others, within minutes. I think that's pretty relevant, at this point. On the other hand, we couldn't have saved a site like Foursquare. They're a startup with probably a very complex application architecture. That's not what standing cloud is designed for. Those folks have to use more nitty-gritty system administration tools to manage their system. But, for people running business applications, those applications are designed within our framework, and they would have been able to move off Amazon in a few minutes. Any application deployed with Standing Cloud is portable, and can run on any of the providers we support. We designed it to work that way.

As someone intimately involved with cloud computing, what do you think could be learned from the extended Amazon EC2 downtime last weekend?

b Dave Jilk: I wrote a long blog post on this, but the quick answer, is that people should not have been surprised that it happened. Although four days is quite extreme, even if it was not four days, it would be a pretty big problem for people running their business using the service. But that said, it should have been no surprise that it would eventually happen. Data centers will go down, hardware will have problems, all computer systems have problems. Everyone has their own computer, and what percentage of the time do they work? They are designed and run by humans, and even the most available systems will go down once in awhile. You need to be ready for that. An example is Netflix, which had no problem at all, even though they use Amazon. That's because they built their system to naturally handle failures, assuming that pieces will fail at various times. You have to build with the idea that your data center might go down, even though data center operators do a good job of keeping them running most of the time. The thing to do as a developer, is to make your system robust to failure.

What are the remaining hurdles to cloud adoption?

Dave Jilk: It depends on who you are talking about. For larger enterprises, they're very concerned about where data lives, and how it is controlled, whether it is secure, how to back it up, and deal with it. Being able to manage servers in a public cloud is a complex matter. Applications are not built for that environment. With small and medium sized businesses, and the informal buyer--those are departments and projects--the issue is if the cloud is if they are scalable. It is, but not unless you have the right tools. That's what we're aiming to do. That leads into our strategy, which is while they are tools out there for platform-as-a-service, like Heroku, or PhpFog, or EngineYard, almost to the last one, they all run only on Amazon. That's not specifically a problem for a user--although in the last few days, it might be--but the point is that you don't want to have to deal with infrastructure as a user. It shouldn't matter where it runs.

Not everyone is aware you founded Feld Technologies with Brad Feld, and have pretty much seen it all in Boulder and the technology world. What's the biggest advice you'd give to entrepreneurs on how to make their companies a success?

Dave Jilk: I think for most entrepreneurs just starting out, the key is to understand what part of the equation you individually bring to the table, and what parts you need to bring on from your partners. An example is, Brad and I were partners, and I was the guy who rolled up my sleeves and was surrounded on all sides by code, working with clients and building systems. Brad, even though he could code, was out in the world trying to make rain. That's oversimplifying what we did, but it was in large part our role in the business. There is no way I could make rain at all, and that is still not my strength. And, although Brad is capable of working on code, he was not motivated by it. He liked going out and finding clients, and having high level conversations. That's just an example. The dimensions might be different for other people, but as an entrepreneur, you need to know what part you bring to the table, and not think you can do it all yourself. Even if you can, eventually, you need to be leveraged, and finding the right partner to complement you--both with skill set and personality--is critical.